The Importance of Being Mallikarjun Kharge

As a veteran in Indian politics, the role that the Congress president has played in softening the rough edges of the INDIA alliance is quite apparent. Kharge has a lot going in his favour.

Of late, political observers have noticed the body language of Rahul Gandhi when he is in the company of  Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge. Rahul visibly displays a lot of respect and reverence for the 81-year-old Congress veteran. A few days ago, Rahul made a public gesture at an event in Karnataka, where he sat beside the Congress president. Anticipating that he might be exhausted and thirsty, Rahul poured water into a glass and offered it to him. Some Congress spokespersons tweeted about this gesture. On another occasion, Rahul made it a point to personally drop off Kharge in his own car after a Congress party meeting.

One is citing these instances only to underline that a special relationship is being forged between Rahul Gandhi and Mallikarjun Kharge. Clearly, Rahul has not displayed such respect and affection in public towards any other veteran Congress leader. This has some serious political import in the context of the INDIA alliance, which has gathered considerable momentum over the past few months. As a veteran in Indian politics, the role that Kharge has played in softening the rough edges of the INDIA alliance is quite apparent.

Kharge has much more going in his favour. He is a Dalit leader from the South and does not threaten caste-based leaders from the north Indian Hindi heartland, where identity politics still creates immense hostilities over turf. History does tell us that whenever there is the absence of a decisive mandate in the Lok Sabha, a non-threatening leader from the South emerges as a consensus candidate in a non-BJP coalition. Of course, this doesn’t apply to a BJP-led coalition, because it is a largely north Indian party.

P.V. Narasimha Rao emerged as the consensus PM candidate after the Congress fell short of a majority in 1991. Within the Congress, there were more powerful leaders from the North but the relatively low-profile Narasimha Rao emerged as a consensus candidate. The same could be said about dark horse Deve Gowda, whom both Lalu Prasad Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav supported to lead the United Front coalition. Neither of these leaders threatened cowbelt political equations in any manner.

It is in this context that Kharge’s importance must be underlined as the INDIA alliance goes into the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. If the Congress’s base case improves to above 100 seats, the 2024 Lok Sabha elections could throw up surprises.

But 2024 is not 2019 and PM Modi will surely be judged by the people on his 10-year performance, irrespective of whether the INDIA alliance has an alternative PM candidate. In 2019, the voter psychology was to give Modi another five years. But this time round, many Modi voters may also think that 10 years is a long time for a leader to show results. So results are what a large number of voters will look for, a noisy Hindutva campaign notwithstanding.

So with optimal seat-sharing across the country, the INDIA alliance can put up a fight if the election is purely a referendum on Modi’s 10 years in power, and what he has done for economic and social welfare, in concrete terms. There is clearly some nervousness in the BJP ― a desperate PM is publicly announcing unfilled government vacancies and internal promotions dressed up as new jobs!

Therefore the INDIA alliance need not project a PM candidate, but the message could be gently delivered that if the Congress emerges as the single largest party within the alliance, with about 110 -120 seats, then Kharge could emerge as a consensus candidate to lead a possible coalition. Rahul Gandhi seems to be mentally preparing for this possibility. By doing so, Rahul may also be signalling that he is firmly out of the race to lead the coalition.

The young Gandhi has always imagined building a credible Dalit leadership to impart some freshness and new energy to the grand old party. Kharge fits the bill perfectly. Besides, it will be very difficult for other INDIA alliance partners or even someone outside it like Mayawati, to oppose Kharge as a post-election leader of the coalition. The next seven months could throw up interesting possibilities. Politics is, after all, the art of the possible!